"I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,
I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down,
And will let the dead go up to eat the living!
And the dead will outnumber the living!" -- Ishtar
Zombies sure seem to be relentlessly popular these days. If it's any indication for you, this is the fourth review on the subject for me in the past three weeks. I suppose I could try boarding up my windows and barricading my doors, but somehow I don't think that will hold back the unearthly creatures for long. So if I can't beat 'em, I figure I might as well join 'em...
In modern times, it's fair to say that zombies as we know them all stem from one common ancestor. Forty years ago, writer/director George A. Romero changed the face of cinematic history when theaters began screening his inevitable masterpiece, "Night of the Living Dead." The genre-defining cult classic would go on to completely reshape our horror perceptions and become one of the most influential films of all time.
Since then, zombie movies have come fast and furious in all shapes and sizes, but Romero is still widely regarded as the godfather of them all with his quintessential "Dead" series including: "Dawn of the Dead" (1978), "Day of the Dead" (1985), and "Land of the Dead" (2005). As a man who isn't afraid to take risks like he did back in 1968, Romero pushes the envelope once again with the next chapter in his franchise--"Diary of the Dead."
"Diary of the Dead" takes us all the way back to the beginning, to the onset of the zombie infestation. However, the film isn't really considered a remake of "Night of the Living Dead," nor a reboot of the series for that matter. "Diary of the Dead" is more of a side-story, only this time Romero attempts to up the ante by having the characters themselves document the terror with their own cameras--similar in style to "The Blair Witch Project" and "Cloverfield." Unfortunately, parts of "Diary of the Dead" works, and parts of it doesn't, making the release one of the more lackluster releases from the filmmaker.
Romero's subjective vision follows a bunch of college film students from the University of Pittsburgh. When we first meet them, the class is hard at work producing a monster movie during the evening somewhere in the woods. Jason (Joshua Close) helms the assignment as the director, while his mentor, Professor Maxwell (Scott Wentworth) observes from the sidelines. Under tight wraps is Ridley (Philip Riccio) starring as the mummy, and Tracey (Amy Ciupak Lalonde) fills the role of the helpless victim. The rest of the class--Tony (Shawn Roberts), Eliot (Joe Dinicol), Gordo (Chris Violette), and Mary (Tatiana Maslany)--all serve as crew working behind the scenes on the project.
After a long day of shooting, it begins to take a toll on the class and they start bickering with one another about their lack of progress. Just as the disagreement escalates into a full-blown argument, Eliot interrupts the group with shocking reports on the news of the dead getting up and attacking the living. At first it just seems like a hoax, but more reports come in and soon the class doesn't know what to believe. All they know is that something strange is going on, and it's spreading like wildfire.
The spoiled rich kid Ridley jumps into his convertible and takes off to his home in Philadelphia, while the rest of the group piles into their Winnebago and heads back to the dorms so Jason can check on his girlfriend. When they arrive, the dorms are practically deserted, further validating that a major crisis is at hand. By this point, Jason realizes their class project has gone down the tubes, so he flips on the camera to document everything in a video diary.
Jason hastily tracks down Debra (Michelle Morgan) and she tells him she already tried calling her family but she can't get through. Everyone regroups in the Winnebago, and they decide to go on a road trip to make sure their relatives are safe--starting with Debra's in Scranton. Of course, along the journey they encounter zombie mayhem, military mayhem, and even civilians-taking-matters-into-their-own-hands mayhem. Who will survive, and who will meet their doom?
"Diary of the Dead" does have a few things going for it. For one, I like how Romero put a little twist on the subjective camera view by having the characters use professional equipment instead of the personal handheld cameras. The film starts out a little shaky, but as the movie progresses the characters become more comfortable with filming so it slowly stabilizes. In short, it really should cut down on the queasiness factor.
Also with the way the movie was filmed, it does have a constant level of suspense and a few jump moments. For instance, when whoever is operating the camera at the time ventures off alone, tension builds because the character is mostly concentrating on looking through the viewfinder and not diverting much focus to what's going on behind or beside them. You never really know when or if something will pounce out of nowhere, so I could definitely see people covering their eyes during these occasions.
Then there's Romero's expert usage of CGI. A lot of films nowadays, like Pulse 2 for example, tend to go overboard with the computer-generated effects and green screens. In this case, Romero just opts to use the tool sporadically--a sprinkle here, a gunshot there, so it doesn't take away from the overall experience. I was particularly impressed with the gory scenes at the hospital where a metal IV bag pole plucked a chunk of brain right out of a zombie's head and defibrillator paddles's fried another's eyes. It was very cool indeed.
On the downside, Romero praises the actors of "Diary of the Dead" in the commentary, but I personally thought they were the weakest part of the film. Aside from a hysterical Mary and the professor who copes by guzzling down whiskey, nobody appeared to be shaken or concerned about the dangers around them. Lalonde was the worst of all, delivering a totally unconvincing and cringe-worthy performance that would make soap stars shudder. I actually even caught her smiling on a few occasions, and I know I sure as hell wouldn't be having a good time if zombies were taking over the world--unless they were Zombie Strippers perhaps.
Another thing that really rubbed me the wrong way is silly sections of the actual screenplay. There are some horrid lines like "we'll never get past it!" when the Winnebago comes to a flaming car on the highway, which is barely crossing the line into their lane! Then quite often, the characters just stand around watching (or filming) their friends getting mauled by zombies, rather than coming to their aid like normal human beings. I can understand in some cases recording live events takes priority over certain things, but here the whole world is going to hell in a handbag. Any survivors are going to be struggling to stay alive, so they aren't even going to care about some students' documentary.
"Diary of the Dead" shambles onto a dual-layer BD-50 (VC-1 codec) and is presented in a widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The picture is relatively soft, with colors heavily muted and subdued--no doubt an intention by Romero to highlight the dismal mood of the film. The only time I noticed major imperfections was when the movie inserted standard-definition sequences that we were made to believe were pulled from the Internet. It's meant to be that way, though.
The audio comes in the form of an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, as well as Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in English and French. From a reviewer's perspective, I thought the lossless sound is very solid for a Blu-ray release. The dialogue comes in clear and is never drowned out by the music, and the rear speakers often chime in with surrounds like gunshots and the harmonious peeping mating calls of nearby frogs.
However, for a film that is supposed to be pretty raw in a subjective view style, it's almost too perfect for its own good. The characters aren't lugging around a boom microphone with them as they document the chaos ensuing around them, so why is the sound practically flawless? I also highly doubt students are going to have access to state-of-the-art mixing equipment and have the ability to deliver sound of this caliber. It just doesn't make much logical sense, and therefore does take the believability factor down a notch. Rounding out the audio are optional subtitles in English and Spanish.
From the looks of things, all of the extras are the same ones found on the DVD release. The first bonus feature is an "Audio Commentary" by Writer/Director George A. Romero, Director of Photography Adam Swica, and Editor Michael Doherty. If you're a film student or just have a general interest in the trials and tribulations of filmmaking, this one is packed with useful and interesting information.
"For the Record: Making of Diary of the Dead" is an extensive documentary covering the production of the film. It is divided into five chapters: "Master of the Dead: Writer/Director George A. Romero" (13:20), "Into the Camera: The Cast" (17:07), "Look Dead: Make-Up Effects" (10:58), "A New Spin on Death: Visual Effects" (19:03), and "A World Gone Mad: Photography and Design" (20:25).
Two additional featurettes are also included: "The Roots" (2:06) is a short clip of Romero sharing a little bit about his inspiration behind "Diary of the Dead," and independent filmmaker Michael Felsher pays a visit to the set during "The First Week" (4:23).
Romero called in some favors and had some of his friends from around Hollywood provide voiceovers for things like the background radio news broadcasts. "Familiar Voices" (5:14) takes a closer look at a few of these cameo recordings: Writer/director Guillermo Del Toro ("Hellboy" and "Pan's Labyrinth"), actor/writer Simon Pegg ("Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz"), and author Stephen King. The film does have a few more, but you'll have to discover those Easter eggs on your own.
Another cool bonus is "MySpace Contest Winners" which is a collection of five of the top zombie shorts made by fans. The Grand Prize Winner is "The Final Day by Paul Del Vecchio" (3:02). Then we have four First Prize Winners: "Deader Living Through Chemistry by Ken Saxion" (3:05), "Opening Night of the Living Dead by Shalena Oxley-Butler" (3:15), "& Teller by Teller and Ezekiel Zabrowski" (3:00), and "Run for Your Life by Jesse Blanchard" (1:43).
Finally, "Character Confessionals" is just clips from the cutting room floor where the characters Debra, Eliot, Tony, and Tracey each privately document their thoughts and fears on camera.
The Final Cut:
Could Romero be trying to send us a subliminal message? In this digital age, we are so entranced with our Blackberries, YouTube, and the like, that maybe it is humanity who is becoming the zombies... or I could just be starving to find some sort of connection.